Tor des Geants 330km non stop through the Italian Alps

I find myself pushing my limits further and further, I have ponded over this many times as to why but feel I have no real answers. I think when someone says that is some crazy race I have this energy to want to research and find out all about it and of course put myself there wondering if it is something I can do.

Well TDG was such a race for me and it wasn’t just about the event but about the journey. 330km through the Italian Alps nonstop with cuts off to meet every step of the way was way out of my comfort zone and I couldn’t believe I was even considering to do it. But there I was on the start line looking up at those massive mountains- OMG really Sandy you are crazy.

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This event starts way before you even get there the planning is not to be underestimated you need to spend many consuming hours on just that a Plan….. Inevitable something of this magnitude be assured things will go wrong. Like no other race I have done you need to have a plan of when you are going to stop and get some sleep, how much gear you are going to need, the extremes of weather, what food are you going to take and the never ending list grew & grew.

After only just completing Badwater end of July I knew it was a big ask on the body but I don’t think I ever thought it wasn’t possible for my body to recover and perform for TDG. Crazy maybe but I had belief in myself and as I started training on hills hills hills …. Coach Andy believed in me too ..perhaps at the end of the day if we don’t dream and believe in ourselves perhaps it isn’t even worth trying..

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I was pumped to say the least that my very dear friend from America Linda and I had decided to attempt the challenge together and yes we dreamed of coming across the finish line hand in hand both with our country flags waving behind us. That vision still gives a tear to my eyes now.

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There were many a SKYPE call and lots of emails trying to plan everything out and a spreadsheet full of information that we thought doable was then some insight into how we thought things might go but like anything it was only a Plan of which we felt we needed for a race like this as to survive without scheduling in sleep was a recipe for a DNF the body can go so far but there is a point of danger were that sleep depriving state has you hallucinating and literature falling asleep on your feet. The dangers were already there in this race without having that as an added extra.

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The climbs many times put we way past my comfort zone with feeling like I was more doing mountaineering, hanging of the sides of cliffs and navigating through rocks and boulders and crazy downhills that were so steep I panicked so many times and had to calm myself down. But to me it was all about just getting through one climb and one descend at a time making the next checkpoint and eventually a life base to work out the time and how much I had for sleep and food.

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That is the part of training perhaps I thought I had sorted but it was all a guessing game really. The hours and hours of training you do puts you in the right head space to spend hours and hours on your own out there as at times I was my own company and other times I shared stories with other competitors or just knew someone were near.

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Arriving in Courmayeur is breathtaking the Mountains sit in the background of the village and all I could think of is in a few days I will be in those mountains …WOW…. I was nervous but there was also a level of great excitement.

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Linda, Amy and I enjoyed some hikes up to altitude to acclimatise and we just sat and took in the breathtaking views hoping the body would adjust to the less oxygenated air.

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Amy had come over with Linda and she was going to assist us where she could at any of the checkpoints accessible it was a nice feeling thinking that a familiar face would be there to cheer us on.

The days before the race I think Linda and I packed re packed so many times until we both decided that was it just let’s get started….. Our final real coffee the day before the race oh yes we were all smiles…very nerves smiles….

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Check in took hours but finally after our gear was checked off, bib numbers and identity band fitted to our wrist we were done. It was time to get in our own bit of head space after seeing the start line and taking some photos we buried ourselves back at the motel and just chilled out. We were both very quiet think it was time to get clear in the head and do what we do best mentally prepare for what was ahead…… mmmmm… not sure either of us really had an idea but we knew we would need to dig deep and just keep moving.

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The start line was incredible the streets were lined with spectators, the music was playing and there was an incredible buzz in the air. 800+ competitors ready to go there was a sea of colours exploding in front of me as everyone squashed in together ready to start. I had goosebumps as they counted down 10,9,8…..3,2,1….we were off….

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A lap around the streets and then out towards the hills and trails after a bit of a bottleneck when we hit the single trail all was good….The climbing started straight away and already one could get a taste of what was ahead.

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Linda and I stayed together and that was the plan to the end but like everything plans don’t always come together. As we climbed and climbed the altitude was really taking a toll on Linda but she was strong so just kept moving up and up for hours we climbed to the first peak. I was keeping an eye on my watch and when we hit the downhill it was time to get the running legs on and make up some time. As we went along we were both very conscious of the cut off time at 5am so Linda made the call and told me to go ahead and that we would meet at the cut off at 5am.

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Linda was strong and determine so I knew we would both give it our best shot to get to the 5am cut off and then continue again together.

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I ran as much of the downhills as I could and power hiked the ups the sun was out and the scenery breathtaking so I felt at ease. Along the way I met a fellow Aussie Helen at one of the checkpoints it was great spending some time with her too.

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Night fell, the air got cooler and it wasn’t long before I came into the barrier cut off at the life station. I was 4 hours ahead of the cut off to leave the L.B. so figured I could have some food and an hours sleep to refresh before I needed to be ready to leave the life base with Linda.

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Surprised to see Amy while I was finishing eating the look on her face said it all… What has happened? I asked she replied Linda hasn’t made the cut off I was devastated and silent. I could feel the tears wheeling up in my eyes…Okay Sandy you need to regroup…I told myself.

After a quick 45min sleep I was on my way but not without a heavy heart…. Kept thinking did I do the right thing when Linda told me to go I felt numb.

I spent the next day’s seeing Helen on and off and meeting up with Kieron another Aussie…

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The climbs were steep scary and hanging off from cliffs is certainly not my forte but I gave it everything and each scary moment I conquered I felt a buzz of excitement. And at times disbelief that I had even managed to get past that point. The downhills were often worse than the ups but after some very kind Italian competitors taught me how to go down, how to position my feet and the way to use the poles that was like a magic trick to me. I started getting faster and faster at those tricky downhills and the occasional slip and fall just made me giggle at myself.

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Kieron and I were together at a time when they told us there was another cut off barrier one we didn’t know about we both panicked and with a storm looming took off like mad men/women on a mission. I have no idea how I got down the boulder hopping steep decent I fell once and hurt my knee and jarred my neck but just didn’t care think I was nearly in tears at the thought of not making the cut off. How could I be so stupid that I didn’t know about this one…. I was angry with myself which just made me pound down faster.

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The storm hit with avenges and every piece of clothing I had I put on as my body was chilling very quickly.

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The rain was cascading down the steep rocky hill faces making waterfalls were we were trying to navigate. It was not pleasant at all and the rain belted onto us. At that time I was pretty happy to have some company near me and although Kieron and I hardly spoke we both had that determination that we were going to make that cut off….it was scary and I look back now and seriously I have no idea how I got down from there. But we did with a few hours to spare on the cut off time…phew so relieved.

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The days and hours all started to roll into one and at times through the darkness of the night I could feel myself jolt as I was falling off to sleep while still moving forward in whatever way I could. The Mountain passes are high with altitude and at times I could feel my lunges begging for air, my knees were starting to hate me on the downhills as I thumped down big drops and skipped over rocks and boulders. My neck was worrying me and it seemed to be hard to straighten it up and the chin just wanted to rest on my chest. It forced me to slow down and to find the flags on the uphill I couldn’t just lift my head and check as I was moving forward but I had to stop push my chin up so my head would go back check where they were and continue. This was distressing but I didn’t dare think about anything other than moving forward and getting to the next checkpoint.

Fog rolled in on some of the mountain passes and it was hard to see….

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The rain had intensified and the coldness of the night meant more layers to keep warm. (ohhhh did I love my iOMerino thermals) The body was tied beyond what I could ever have imagined it to be. The neck had got worse I was trying to block out the pain but I remember coming into a life base feeling miserable as the rain was pouring down and there was Linda and Amy I didn’t expect them to be there but they where I blurted out about the pain in my neck and was holding my head to try and relieve some of the pain. Hugging them I just didn’t want to let go. 

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After I checked in at the barrier they took me in to see the Dr and physio.

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Both of them worked on my neck to try to relieve some of the pain, tapping through the neck and around the back and shoulders. I have no idea what the Dr told me as really I was just like fix me up and I will be on my way.

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After waiting some time and quickly getting some food and more layers of clothing on I was off determined to finish this beast of a race.

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My mind was playing tricks rocks looked like heads, then I would see a kettle sitting on a rock and ponder why that was there, weird looking animals were coming in and out of my vision I huge igloo type tent with two cattleman lying beside it & somehow wedged into the cliff face ….I couldn’t understand how they even got in there to get the tent up…. I rubbed my eyes, squinted and blinked lots .. WAS IT REAL OR NOT…. The truth was I didn’t know anymore but seem to just except whatever I saw, fact or fiction…. I would keep looking at my watch but I didn’t seem to know anymore what the time was…then I would panic … and have a feeling of terror …did I sit down and go to sleep out here in the dark and cold of the night. I would pinch myself, slap my face & growl at myself to wake up and just keep moving.

The fog now was so thick I kept slicing it up with my hands, we were still climbing I felt so physically exhausted and knew I just had to dig deeper. My neck was in a full spasm and as the tears rolled down my face I slipped and face planted grasping on to some rocks panicking I tried to stand but the rain had made underfoot slippery and I started to slid and scream. OMG what am I doing out here muttering to myself “you stupid stupid girl get up” then yelling it out…“you stupid stupid girl get up” I just couldn’t I started sobbing more and getting so angry at myself. From behind I felt a pair of hands latch onto my jacket, pull me up, put me on my feet and push me back over onto the trail. I started moving forward saying I am so sorry I am so stupid what a stupid stupid girl I am……then in the depth of the night I turned to say thank you hardly being able to see out of my beanie and rain coatwhich were half pulled over my eyes … but no one was there ….. and for some reason I said is that you Col are you there?? Not sure I expected an answer but none the less said it anyway…

All I knew was I had to keep moving getting to the life base time was my enemy at present and had become the only focus reality and fiction were unimportant. The pain was intense and I think I was more upset and frustrated with myself than anything else. My stubbornness just kept giving me the drive to continue no matter what and I knew Col was flying in from Australia and just wanted to get to where I could see him and for him to be so proud when I crossed the finish line.

I had come through the night with a group of about eight and when day broke and we came into a Refugio so sleep deprived and just wanted to get some food to warm us and sit for a few minutes then continue

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we were told we would not make the next cut off. I sobbed and said yes I will and left everyone else there…all I kept saying to myself is how dare they tell me I won’t make it how dare they tell me to stop….. I have to make it ….I want this so bad.

Crying from pain from my neck I had to refocus I WAS going to make this next cut off so I powered on digging in the poles dragging myself up every climb. By now the neck was so bad I was slowing down there was no time for sleep so I continued with barely being able to lift my head off my chin from my chest… The snow began to fall it was magical I thought what a great finish to this race. As the landscape became whiter and the snow kept falling it seem to calm me perhaps my tears frozen in that moment of time.

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A finish line photo of what had been an epic adventure would be magical but it was not meant to be in a sobbing state I couldn’t make the 1.30pm cut off on Friday and at 264 km and some incredible 24,000 of ascending I was withdrawn from event. Suffering so much from a neck problem the intense pain I was trying to override, my stubbornness to not just give in, medics trying to help, Physios working on it, sleep deprivation would not let me give in I had this firm belief in myself I just had to keep pushing myself and I could finish this beast of a race. Battle after battle even when I was told those words you will not make the cut off… I continued I tried so hard to get to the next cut off but when the realisation hit me I was not going too ….I sobbed uncontrollably coming down to a Refugio (Check point)with snowflakes falling I had to stop for a few minutes…. I was physically and emotional exhausted depleted of everything..the lack of sleep and intense pain from my neck and a few errors in my tiredness I had made with calculating out time to get to the cut offs finally had put a stop to this dream. Col had only flown in last night and I was excited for him to be at the finish line to see me come in, the disappointment was intense in my heart but it was time for me to get some medical attention and finally give in to these Mountain giants. They had won.

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At the Refugio they organised a helicopter to take myself and another competitor who was injured to the hospital. As I sat waiting in the Refugio I couldn’t stop sobbing I felt l had failed myself and everyone else that had helped me make this journey. The snow was falling heavier and the fog had rolled in thicker so it was tricky for the chopper to land …eventually it did flying us to the hospital. As I watched out the window of the helicopter seeing some of the most epic magnificent mountains beauty beyond belief I giggled to myself and thought WOW Sandy just look down there at what you have just experienced something so amazing, a journey within a journey… I could only wonder have those giants destroyed me or had I had an experience of a lifetime one that I had learnt many knew rich lesson from…..mmmmm…..

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Landing at the hospital in the chopper being wheel chaired in seemed all wrong but wasn’t long before I had my wonderful husband next to me and cherished friends Linda and Amy who had been so much support throughout the race. After being checked out and X-rayed I left the hospital with a neck brace.

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The next day at the presentations and awards

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Col gave me a rose and told me that was my award… .

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I just smiled and thought did I really fail…. After all what is failure…. The journey was simply amazing.

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